What Else Falls with Fallen Standards? Obama’s “Mean Girls”

Obama's Mean Girls

Anyone who’s been paying attention to national politics may have gotten the strange, discomforting feeling that the United States has, for the past several years, been led in a manner more befitting a Student Council rather than a world power. Whether it’s Harry Reid’s whiny vendetta against the Koch brothers, or the more recent indecent back stab of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the seats of power are behaving not unlike a high school popularity contest. Peggy Noonan zeroed in on one such example recently in a blog post at the Wall Street Journal regarding a phone call President Obama made to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, apparently, a loose-lipped staffer in the Senator’s office:

Presidents don’t call senators to complain that someone in their office got them mad. That is below a president. (It is especially below one during a crisis.) If persistent leaks get under a president’s skin, he has one of the tough guys around him make that call. If it’s really serious, he has his chief of staff do it. But a president doesn’t lower himself to making accusations, he doesn’t stoop to expressing personal anger at a mere congressional staffer. Presidents have bigger things to do. They also know that everyone leaks. They roll their eyes and keep walking.

Senators don’t have staffers surreptitiously listen in on phone calls from the president of the United States. If they want to request that someone listen in and take notes, they can, and the White House can give or decline permission in advance of the call. Has any senator ever violated this etiquette? Probably, sure. But it is a violation, and they would know it is a violation and not something to brag about.

Staffers to senators don’t jump in on phone calls to argue with a president of the United States. It is disrespectful and a violation of the president’s stature.

Staffers or senators who did do such things would not talk about it, would not put it into the air on Capitol Hill so that a reporter could pick it up and tell the story.

So, basically, The White House and Halls of Congress have become Mean Girls. And in the event you haven’t seen that brilliant gem of a film:

Now, what with the demographic make-up of the millennial generation who are already beginning to lead — and have been able to vote for some time — perhaps this seems a likely trajectory for our country to take. After all, this was one of the images this administration used to try to sell it’s signature healthcare law:

pajama boy

But there are reasons to worry about the rise of Pajama Boys and his gender opposite, Lena Dunham. Thomas Cahill wrote an excellent book 20 years or so ago about the Irish and their role in preserving Western thought during Europe’s Dark Ages and in the beginning of the book he outlines why he believes the fall of Rome — which marked the end of the Classical Period and the beginning of rampant illiteracy and disease in the West — happened. It could be summed up in the pervasiveness of a man called Ausonius, a poet who lived in the Roman province of Gaul (that’s France to you and me). Ausonius was one of the best men of his age, a vineyard owner, a teacher, respected as a great man of his age. And here is Cahill’s description of his poetry, and, by default, his description of Ausonius the man:

Ausonius’s poetry is full of pia verba; except for the occasional, only half-intentional epiphanies…there is little else. There are endless sequences about forebears, about former teachers, about daily life, about classical subjects (the heroes of the Trojan War, the Twelve Caesars), endless word games, and endless imitations of Virgil…he is deliberately unoriginal: every phrase is taken from the poems of Virgil. Thus does he mean to avoid censure by appealing to the ultimate literary authority and to win admiration by a dazzling display of his knowledge of Virgil. But, apart from these hommages, there is almost never a memorable phrase, just high-class jingles, written to formula. His letters, also endless, are no better: there is seldom any necessary information to be communicated, insights are scarce, and genuine emotion is almost entirely absent. Though his effete contemporaries compared Ausonius to Virgil and Cicero, practically all others have found themselves in agreement with the robust opinion of Gibbon: “The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.”

How could a grown man have spent so much time so foolishly? Well, it’s what everyone else was doing. This is a static world. Civilized life, like the cultivation of Ausonius’s magnificent Bordeaux vineyards, lies in doing well what has been done before. Doing the expected is the highest value— and the second highest is like it: receiving the appropriate admiration of one’s peers for doing it.

I don’t know about you, but if I had to visualize Ausonius, Pajama Boy would not be a difficult leap to make. In any event, the standards have most definitely fallen. Hopefully the US can correct course before the rest of Cahill’s description of the fall of the great Roman Empire happens. Sorry to be cliche, but read on and see if there aren’t parts in there that you recognize within our country today.

There are, no doubt, lessons here for the contemporary reader. The changing character of the native population, brought about through unremarked pressures on porous borders; the creation of an increasingly unwieldy and rigid bureaucracy, whose own survival becomes its overriding goal; the despising of the military and the avoidance of its service by established families, while its offices present unprecedented opportunity for marginal men to whom its ranks had once been closed; the lip service paid to values long dead; the pretense that we still are what we once were; the increasing concentrations of the populace into richer and poorer by way of a corrupt tax system, and the desperation that inevitably follows; the aggrandizement of executive power at the expense of the legislature; ineffectual legislation promulgated with great show; the moral vocation of the man at the top to maintain order at all costs, while growing blind to the cruel dilemmas of ordinary life— these are all themes with which our world is familiar, nor are they the God-given property of any party or political point of view, even though we often act as if they were. At least, the emperor could not heap his economic burdens on posterity by creating long-term public debt, for floating capital had not yet been conceptualized. The only kinds of wealth worth speaking of were the fruits of the earth.

Though it is easy for us to perceive the wild instability of the Roman Imperium in its final days, it was not easy for the Romans. Rome, the Eternal City, had been untouchable since the Celts of Gaul had sacked it by surprise in 390 B.C. In the ensuing eight centuries Rome built itself into the world’s only superpower, unassailable save for the occasional war on a distant border. The Gauls had long since become civilized Romans, and Rome offered the same Romanization to anyone who wanted it— sometimes, as with the Jews, whether they wanted it or not. Normally, though, everyone was dying to be Roman. As Theodoric, the homely king of the Ostrogoths, was fond of saying: “An able Goth wants to be like a Roman; only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth.”

The citizens of the City of Rome, therefore, could not believe it when toward the end of the first decade of the fifth century, they woke to find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, and all his forces parked at their gates. He might as well have been the king of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, or any other of the inconsequential outlanders that civilized people have looked down their noses at throughout history. It was preposterous. They dispatched a pair of envoys to conduct the tiresome negotiation and send him away. The envoys began with empty threats: any attack on Rome was doomed, for it would be met by invincible strength and innumerable ranks of warriors. Alaric was a sharp man, and in his rough fashion a just one. He also had a sense of humor.

“The thicker the grass, the more easily scythed,” he replied evenly

 


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